the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Clarke's Commentary Clarke Commentary
- 2 Peter
by Adam Clarke
As the preface to the preceding epistle embraces the question of the authenticity of both epistles, and also considers several matters common to both, I need not take up the subject here afresh; but simply consider those matters which are peculiar to the epistle before me, and which have not been examined in the foregoing preface.
"This epistle, as appears from 2 Peter 3:1, (says Michaelis), was written to the same communities as the first epistle; and the author gives us thus to understand, that he was the person who wrote the first epistle; that is, the Apostle Peter. He calls himself likewise, 2 Peter 1:1, Συμεων Πετρος, δουλος και αποστολος Ινσου Χριστου, Symeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ; and 2 Peter 1:16-18 says that he was present at the transfiguration of Christ on the mount. The notion therefore entertained by Grotius, that this epistle was written by a bishop of Jerusalem of the name of Simeon, is absolutely inadmissible; and we have no other alternative than this: either it was written by the apostle St. Peter, or it is a forgery in his name.
"The ancients entertained very great doubts whether St. Peter was really the author. Eusebius, in his chapter where he speaks of the books of the New Testament in general, reckons it among the αντιλεγομενα, those not canonical. He says that tradition does not reckon, as a part of the New Testament, the second epistle ascribed to Peter; but that, as in the opinion of most men, it is useful, it is therefore much read. Origen had said, long before, that Peter had left behind him one epistle universally received, and perhaps a second, though doubts are entertained about it.
"The old Syriac version, though it contains the Epistle of St. James, which Eusebius likewise reckons among the αντιλεγομενα, does not contain the Second Epistle of St. Peter. Now it cannot be said that the other books of the New Testament were translated into Syriac before St. Peter's second epistle was written; for St. Paul's Second Epistle to Timothy was written certainly as late, and yet is contained in this very version. And if an epistle, addressed only to an individual, was known to the Syriac translator, it may be thought that a circular epistle addressed to communities dispersed in several countries in Asia, would hardly have escaped his notice. The circumstance, therefore, that the old Syriac translator did not translate the Second Epistle of St. Peter as well as the first, may be used as an argument against its antiquity, and of course against its authenticity.
"It appears then that, if the authenticity of this epistle were determined by external evidence, it would have less in its favor than it would have against it. But, on the other hand, the internal evidence is greatly in its favor; and indeed so much so, that the epistle gains in this respect more than it loses in the former. Wetstein, indeed, says that since the ancients themselves were in doubt, the moderns cannot expect to arrive at certainty, because we cannot obtain more information on the subject in the eighteenth, than ecclesiastical writers were able to obtain in the third and fourth, centuries. Now this is perfectly true as far as relates to historical knowledge, or to the testimony of others in regard to the matter of fact, whether St. Peter was the author or not. But when this question is to be decided by an examination of the epistle itself, it is surely possible that the critical skill and penetration of the moderns may discover in it proofs of its having been written by St. Peter, though these proofs escaped the notice of the ancients. After a diligent comparison of the First Epistle of St. Peter with that which is ascribed to him as his second, the agreement between them appears to me to be such, that, if the second was not written by St. Peter as well as the first, the person who forged it not only possessed the power of imitation in a very unusual degree, but understood likewise the design of the first epistle, with which the ancients do not appear to have been acquainted. Now, if this be true, the supposition that the second epistle was not written by St. Peter himself, involves a contradiction. Nor is incredible that a pious impostor of the first or second century should have imitated St. Peter so successfully as to betray no marks of a forgery; for the spurious productions of those ages, which were sent into the world in the name of the apostles, are for the most part very unhappy imitations, and discover very evident marks that they were not written by the persons to whom they were ascribed. Other productions of this kind betray their origin by the poverty of their materials, or by the circumstance that, instead of containing original thoughts, they are nothing more than a rhapsody of sentiments collected from various parts of the Bible, and put together without plan or order.
"This charge cannot possibly be laid to the Second Epistle of Peter, which is so far from containing materials derived from other parts of the Bible, that the third chapter exhibits the discussion of a totally new subject. Its resemblance to the Epistle of Jude will hardly be urged as an argument against it; for no doubt can be made that the Second Epistle of St. Peter was, in respect to the Epistle of St. Jude, the original, and not the copy. Lastly, it is extremely difficult, even for a man of the greatest talents, to forge a writing in the name of another, without sometimes inserting what the pretended author either would not or could not have said; and support the imposture in so complete a manner as to militate, in not a single instance, either against his character or against the age in which he lived. Now, in the Second Epistle of St. Peter, though it has been a subject of examination full seventeen hundred years, nothing has hitherto been discovered which is unsuitable either to the apostle or the apostolic age. Objections, indeed, have been made on account of its style; but the style of the second epistle, when compared with that of the first, warrants rather the conclusion that both were written by the same person. We have no reason, therefore, to believe that the Second Epistle of St. Peter is spurious, especially as it is difficult to comprehend what motive could have induced a Christian, whether orthodox or heretic, to attempt the fabrication of such an epistle, and then falsely ascribe it to St. Peter.
"Having shown that the supposition that this epistle is spurious is without foundation, I have, in the next place, to show that there are positive grounds for believing it to be genuine. The arguments in favor of its genuineness are of two kinds, being founded on the similarity of the two epistles, either in respect to their materials, or in respect to their style. The arguments of the former kind are as follow: -
"The design of the first epistle was to assure the uncircumcised Christians that they stood in the grace of God. Now it was not generally known that this was the design of it; and therefore we cannot suppose that any person whose object was to forge an epistle in St. Peter's name should have observed it. But the design of the second epistle was certainly the same as that of the first, as appears from the address, 2 Peter 1:1 : Τοις ισοτιμον ἡμιν λαχουσι πιστιν εν δικαιοσυνῃ του Θεου· To them who have obtained like precious faith with us, through the righteousness of God. If we explain ἡμιν, as denoting 'us apostles,' the address will imply what was wholly unnecessary, since no one could doubt that the faith of other Christians might be as good as the faith of the apostles; and it will sound likewise rather haughty and assuming; but if we explain ἡμιν as denoting 'us who were born Jews,' and consider that the second epistle, as well as the first, was directed to persons who were born heathens, the address becomes clear and consistent: δικαιοσυνῃ του Θεου, will then signify the impartiality of God in estimating the faith of native heathens as highly as the faith of native Jews, which St. Peter has extolled in other places. We shall likewise be able to explain 2 Peter 1:8-10, which appears to contain the tautology that those who are diligent in good works are not idle; whereas, if this epistle be explained from the design of the first, we shall perceive the meaning of the passage to be this, that they who are diligent in good works need not fear the reproach that they observe not the Levitical law, since their good works, which are the fruit of their religious knowledge, will be the means of making their calling and election sure. (See the note on 2 Peter 1:8-10 (note).)
"The deluge, which is not a common subject in the apostolic epistles, is mentioned both in 1 Peter 3:20, and in 2 Peter 2:5; and in both places the circumstance is noted, that eight persons only were saved; though in neither place does the subject require that the number should be particularly specified. Now it is true that St. Peter was not the only apostle who knew how many persons were saved in the ark; but he only, who by habit had acquired a familiarity with the subject, would ascertain the precise number, where his argument did not depend upon it. The author of the first epistle had read St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans; and the author of the second epistle speaks in express terms, 2 Peter 3:15, 2 Peter 3:16, of the epistles of St. Paul. Now, no other writer of the New Testament has quoted from the New Testament; consequently, we have in these epistles a criterion from which we may judge that they were written by the same author.
"Before I consider the arguments which are derived from the style of these epistles, I must observe that several commentators have on the contrary contended that the style is very different; and hence have inferred that they were written by different authors; but it is extremely difficult to form from a single epistle so complete a judgment of the author's style and manner as to enable us to pronounce with certainty that he was not the author of another epistle ascribed to him. The style of the same writer is not always the same at every period of his life, especially when he composes not in his native, but in a foreign, language.
"From what has been said in the course of this section, it appears that even the second chapter of the second epistle has some resemblance both in style and contents to the first epistle. This is to be particularly noted, because even the advocates for the second epistle have in general granted that the style of this chapter is not the usual style of St. Peter. Bishop Sherlock, for instance, acknowledges it; nor, though I contend that there is some similarity, as in 2 Peter 2:5-7, will I assert that there is no difference. But it will not therefore follow that the whole epistle was not written by St. Peter: and if it is allowable to draw a conclusion from one or two passages, it will be no other than this, that the second chapter is spurious, because the style of it is said to be as different from the first and third chapters as it is from the first epistle. This conclusion, however, no one will draw who has examined the connection of the whole epistle; in fact the difference in question is rather of a negative kind; for though I am unable to discover any remarkable agreement in style between the first epistle and the second chapter of the second epistle, I do not perceive any remarkable difference. This second chapter has indeed several words which are unusual in other parts of the New Testament, but the same may be said of the first epistle: and some of the expressions which to us appear extraordinary were borrowed perhaps from the Gnostics, whose doctrines are here confuted; for it is not unusual in combatting the opinions of a particular sect to adopt their peculiar terms. Thus in 2 Peter 2:17, the Gnostics are called 'clouds, agitated by a tempest;' and we know that the Manicheans, who had many doctrines in common with the Gnostics, taught that there were five good and five bad elements, and that one of the latter was called 'tempest.' In like manner they frequently speak of darkness under the name of ζοφος, which occurs more than once in this chapter. The Epistle of St. Jude has a still greater number of unusual figurative expressions; and it is not impossible that these also were borrowed from the Gnostics. The Second Epistle of St. Peter must have been written only a short time before his death; for he says, 2 Peter 1:14, 'shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath showed me.' St. Peter here alludes to his conversation with Christ after the resurrection, recorded in John 21:18-22, where Christ had foretold his death in the following manner: 'When thou shalt be old thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.' Hence St. Peter might very easily conclude that he would not survive the coming of Christ to judge Jerusalem. But Christ has declared that Jerusalem would be destroyed before one generation passed away. St. Peter, therefore, after a lapse of thirty years, that is, in the year 64, necessarily considered his death as an event not far distant. As to the design of this epistle, it appears that St. Peter wrote against certain persons who, though members of the Church, denied the doctrine of a general judgment and a dissolution of the world. They inferred that this event, because it had been long delayed, would never take place; to which objection St. Peter replies by saying, That one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day: that the Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering, not willing that any man should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Farther, St. Peter argues, that as the earth has already undergone a great revolution at the deluge, another revolution equally great is not incredible; and that since the former event was at the time when it happened as unexpected as the latter will be, we ought to believe in God's declaration, that the world will one day be totally destroyed. This destruction, St. Peter says, will be effected, not by water, as at the deluge, but by fire. 'The elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also, and the works that are therein, shall be burned up.' Now, a general conflagration will be more easily admitted by those who are unacquainted with the state of the earth, than a universal deluge; for though it may be difficult to comprehend whence a sufficient quantity of water could be brought to cover the whole earth, yet no one can deny that the bowels of the earth abound with inflammable matter, and that fiery eruptions may spread themselves throughout the surface of the globe. (See the notes on 2 Peter 3:9-11 (note).)
"It must be observed that St. Peter's appeal to the deluge in the time of Noah implies that the adversaries whom he combats admitted that the Mosaic account of it was true, since it would have been useless to have argued from a fact which they denied. This must be kept in view, because it will assist us in determining who these adversaries were.
"St. Peter describes these false teachers, 2 Peter 2:10-12, as calumniators of the angels; which the apostle highly censures, even though the calumny should be directed against the fallen angels, since some respect is due to their former greatness and power. St. Peter says, 'angels themselves, which are greater in power and might, bring not railing accusation against them before the Lord; but these as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things which they understand not.' Here we have a description of these false teachers, which points them out more distinctly than any of the preceding accounts, and shows they were Gnostics. For the ecclesiastical history furnishes many examples of improper adoration paid to the angels. I know of no sect which calumniated them, except that of the Gnostics. Now the Gnostics calumniated the angels by their doctrine in respect to the creation of the world. They raised certain angels to the rank of creators; but described the creation as very imperfect, and the authors of it as wicked and rebellious against the supreme Being.
"Having thus shown that St. Peter in his second epistle combats the opinion of a Gnostic sect, I will now venture to go a step farther, and attempt to determine the name which the orthodox gave to this particular sect in the first century. St. Peter describes them, 2 Peter 2:15, as following the way of Balaam, that is, as following the religious doctrine of Balaam. The doctrine of Balaam, as St. John says, Revelation 2:14, was to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit fornication. And since Nicolaus, in Greek, has the same meaning as Balaam in Hebrew, the followers of Balaam are called by St. John, Revelation 2:15, Nicolaitans.
Now it is well known that the Nicolaitans were a sect of the Gnostics; and therefore it was probable that this was the sect against which St. Peter wrote. To this opinion it has been objected, that if St. Peter had meant the Nicolaitans, he would have called them, not followers of Balaam, but by their proper name, Nicolaitans; first, because in general proper names are retained and not translated; and, secondly, because in the present instance, no one before Cocceius observed the analogy between the Hebrew word Balaam and the Greek word Nicolaus. But neither of these reasons are true. For to say nothing of the general custom which once prevailed among the literati of Germany, of translating their names into Greek or Latin; I could produce examples of such translations amongst the Jews, of which it will be sufficient to mention that which occurs in Acts 9:36. And the derivation of the Nicolaitans from Balaam must have been long known, at least in Asia; for in the Arabic version published by Erpenius, we find an instance of it in Revelation 2:6, where τα εργα των Νικολαιτων is rendered (Arabic) that is 'works of the Shuaibites.' Now the Arabic word (Shuaib) is equivalent to the Hebrew Balaam. Shuaib is mentioned in the Koran (Surat vii. 86; xxvi. 176, and in other places) as the prophet of the Midianites. Some suppose that by Shuaib is meant Jethro; but in my opinion no other person is meant but Balaam, who was sent for by the Midianites as well as by the Moabites. At least I cannot comprehend how the Nicolaitans, or any other heretics, could be considered as followers of Jethro. The Arabic verb shaaba, signifies he destroyed, and the noun shaabon, the people. It is not improbable, therefore, that the Arabs adopted the word shuaib, as corresponding to the Hebrew word בלעם Balaam, which is compounded of בלע bala, he swallowed up or destroyed, and עם am, the people. So Νικολαος, Nicolas, is from νικαω, to overcome, and λαος, the people." - See Michaelis's Introduction.
I shall not attempt to dispute the propriety of these derivations and etymologies; but I must make one remark on the Shuaibites. In general, the Arabic writers say that Shuaib was Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, and that God had sent him, according to the Koran, to preach pure morality to the Midianites; but I do not remember to have met with a sect of idolaters or heretics called Shuaibites. In both the places of the Koran mentioned above, Shuaib is spoken of with respect. But the conjecture that Shuaib and Balaam are the same is exceedingly probable; and this makes the etymology the more likely.
We may safely conclude from all the evidence before us,
1. That St. Peter, the apostle, was the author of this, as well as of the other, epistle.
2. That it was written to the same persons.
3. That they were in a state of persecution, and had also to contend with Gnostics or other heretics in the Church.
4. That it was written a short time after the first epistle, and not long before St. Peter's martyrdom; but the precise year cannot be ascertained.